Introduction to Hinduism: History, Text, Philosophy

Tutor: Gitte Poulsen
Start date: 16 January 2022


This course provides a broad survey of Hinduism. We give an understanding of the nature and scope of Hindu religious traditions. The big idea we explore here is ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindu dharma’. This helps us understand Hindu identity, both traditionally and in the modern world. This course explains Hindu beliefs and values and encourages you to consider the significance of these ideas to modern life.


In this course we look at what it means to be a Hindu. How has Hinduism formed historically and how does it deal with modernity? We look at Hindu sources of authority – specifically the vast philosophical and textual traditions.

The course consists of seven sessions delivered on a weekly basis.

Session One: What is Hindu identity?

We begin with some questions: What does it mean to be a Hindu? How do we define Hindu identity? What is dharma? We discover that there are many answers to these questions but this discussion will help us reach some conclusions.

Session Two: Origins and History of the Hindu Tradition

We now turn to the origins of Hinduism and how it has developed. Older forms of the religion appear to have been replaced by a focus on the individual rather than the group, and future lives rather than the present. From 250 BC, we find Buddhism and Jainism growing in India with many rulers following their teachings supporting renunciant communities. At the same time new forms of Hinduism emerge that speak of an omnipotent God who bestows grace and love upon his worshippers. It is these monotheistic traditions that become predominant in the early centuries AD and which gradually come to take precedence. We see how these developments influenced belief and practice. We also discuss differences between the academic view of Hindu history and that of the tradition itself.

Session Three: The Historical Development of Hinduism

We begin with a look at the new forms of Hinduism that came to prominence around two thousand years ago. We then consider the effect that foreign domination had on Indian religion. This brings us to the ‘Hindu revival’ that occurred in the first millennium AD. Although often said to be due to Shankaracharya, it seems that the process began long before him and was in fact more closely associated with the rise of a theistic Hinduism that preached love and devotion to Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess.

In this section we also provide some social, economic, and political context to the development of Hinduism.

Vishnu - Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Library

Vishnu – Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Library

Session Four: The Hindu Scriptures, Part I – The Vedas

Scripture is a major form of authority in Hinduism (along with religious institutions, teachers, family, and community). We consider the the role and authority of scripture in the Hindu religious tradition. This leads to a discussion of the four Vedas and the type of religion they reveal.

Session Five: The Hindu Scriptures, Part II – The Upanishads and Other Texts

We now move to the Upanishads. These can be regarded as the foundation not just of Hinduism but of Indian religion as a whole. We also consider other important texts that have shaped Hinduism. Some of the texts we look at in this session are more influential than the Vedas themselves and have come to form an intrinsic part of Indian culture.

Session Six: Hindu Religious Philosophy

We examine the six schools (shad-darshana) of Indian philosophy.

Session Seven: Hindu Religious Philosophy – A Personal Deity

We turn our attention to the schools of Hinduism that believe in a personal Supreme Deity. These advocate worship and devotion as the principal form of practice to be undertaken in pursuit of liberation from rebirth.


Course delivery is 100% online

7–9 weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

Communicate online with your fellow students

All course materials are delivered via the web

Student forums with tutor participation

Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format

All required lecture notes included

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies

Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme

Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.

Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays or course work of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.

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